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The Horned God is a modern syncretic term, invented to link together numerous male nature gods out of such widely-dispersed and historically unconnected mythologies as the Celtic Cernunnos, the Welsh Caerwiden, the English Herne the Hunter, the Hindu Pashupati, the Greek Pan and the satyrs, and even the Paleolithic cave painting "the Sorcerer" in the Cave of the Three Brothers in France.
Development of an idea
Sacred horned or antlered animals that signalled the numinous presence of a deity were ubiquitous in the ancient world. Enthusiasts may blur "the very important distinctions between a god named, described, represented, and worshipped in animal form, a real animal worshipped as a god, animal symbols and animal masks in the cult, and finally the consecrated animal destined for sacrifice." (Burkert 1985 p 64). Many sacred bulls and goats, sacred stags and ibexes serve as examples. Not all horned gods and their priests were male; Astarte and Isis (borrowing an attribute from Hathor), for example, were sometimes depicted with horns.
The idea that all these horned images were deities and that they represented a single Horned God, and that Christianity had attempted to suppress his worship by associating him with Satan, developed in the fashionable 19th-century occultist circles of England and France. Eliphas Levi's famous illustration of Baphomet in his Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie (1855) accompanied the first suggestions to this effect. It was not an evil figure, Levi contended, but a god of the old world, driven underground and condemned as a figure of witchcraft by hostile Christianity. Figures such as Aleister Crowley and Margaret Murray took up this suggestion and blended it with an adaptation of cultural anthropologies such as that of James Frazer. Where Frazer saw modern folklore and folk customs as the echoes of forgotten agricultural rituals, authors such as Murray and other members of the Folklore Society saw an esoteric fertility cult, a secret tradition driven underground and suppressed (see Burning Times) by Christianity. Margaret Murray suggested that Christian reports of witches meeting in the woods with Satan were actually pagans with their priest wearing a horned helmet to invoke their Horned God (Murray 1921). These themes shaped the modern concept of the Horned God revered by neo-pagans today, which the remainder of this article will describe.
- Burkert, Walter, Greek Religion 1985.
- Frazer, James, The Golden Bough
- Murray, Margaret, God of the Witches 1933.
- Murray, Margaret, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe 1921.
In each culture, the Horned God is associated with woods, wild animals, and hunting. He is often also associated with sexuality or male virility. As a symbol of sexuality, the Horned God represents one of the most elemental forces in Nature, and is therefore complementary to female fertility deities known collectively as the Great Mother.
Another name for the Horned God is The Hunter. He is a symbol not only of the giving of life, but the taking of life too, in what is seen as a great and eternal cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. He sometimes carries a bow.
The Horned God is always portrayed with horns or antlers, which are of course his distinguishing feature. The God's horns are considered symbols of male potency, strength and protection. Sometimes they are seen in a sense as phallic symbols. The horn has been a religious symbol for thousands of years. An altar made entirely of stag horns was built in the temple of Apollo at Delos, and temples to the Goddess Diana usually contained horns as well. The horn is also seen as a symbol of fruitfulness and bounty, as in the Horn of Plenty.
He is often portrayed with an erect phallus. The phallus is itself a symbol of the power to create life. Another symbol of his sexual prowess and virility is the occasional presence of cloven hoofs or the hindquarters of a goat. The goat itself is considered a symbol of sexuality.
During the rise of Christianity, a depiction of Satan as as a horned and hoofed goat-like monster holding a trident, adopted from Greek Pan, became popular. By adopting the image of the Horned God and transforming it into an image of the Devil, the Christian church convinced people that paganism was evil. The similarity does not extend beyond the image, of course; while Judeo-Christian Satan is described as a fallen angel and essentially Evil, the pagan Horned God is a force of nature, neither entirely benevolent nor entirely maleficent: In his role as Father, he gives life, but in his role as Hunter, he takes life as well. Positive aspects of the Horned God are re-attributed to Satan by the Church of Satan and similar branches of modern Satanism.
Post Christian depictions
Belief in and worship of the Horned God waned almost to extinction by the 19th century, although vestiges remained in local customs, particularly in the countryside. Ghost stories of Herne the Hunter and reverence of St. Cornus would be the strongest pre-wiccan remnants of the Horned God. He makes a late appearance in art referred to in the moonlit last act of Verdi's final opera, Falstaff.
Gerald Gardner began Wicca in England as a revival of ancient Pagan worship, focused on the duality of the Great God and the Great Mother. Today Wicca and other Neopagan religions claim about 1,000,000 adherents.
In modern Wicca, "The Horned God" can refer to any of these individually, or to the universal archetype they represent. In this context, he is sometimes referred to as the "Great God" or the "Great Father". He impregnates the Goddess, and then dies during the autumn and winter months and is reborn gloriously in spring, while the Goddess lives on always as Mother Earth, giving life to the Horned God as he goes through the eternal cycle of life, death, and rebirth.
- "The Celtic Tarot and the Secret Traditions: A Study in Modern Legend Making": Juliette Wood; Folklore, Vol. 109, 1998
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